Friday, September 30, 2016

Saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a faded flag


I pledge allegiance …

The sky was yellow Wednesday evening, so I took the flag down before the rain came. Thursday morning before work I put it back out, sliding the aluminum pole into the unsteady brass holder on our front porch, immediately placing my right hand against my heart and saying the pledge because, well, that’s what I do.

… to the flag …

The old flag is faded. The field of royal blue is now more of a bluish white. I probably should replace it. But it was a quality flag. I got it when we bought the house 16 years ago. The stars are embroidered; none of those cheap printed flags.

… of the United States of America …

But I like the faded flag. It seems apt. Not that we are a country fading, in decline — though we certainly seem to be, especially of late, divided, bickering, hating each other, unable to function while our problems deepen and our rivals thrive. We are into the second quarter of our third century. Not a young country anymore. Could we possibly go from the recklessness of youth straight to the folly of age without ever being wise?

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Postscript: a reader pointed out that I forgot a word in the pledge. My immediate impulse was to hurry to put it in. Then I paused, deciding to leave it out, as a reminder, since a lot of people seem to forget that word.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Pack your lunch!



     Pack your lunch, and slide by my last book signing of Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery, published by the University of Chicago Press and written with Sara Bader. It's from 12 to 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 at Chicago's iconic office supply store, Atlas Stationers, 227 W. Lake.  A 75-year-old family-run business, owned by Don and Therese Schmidt, Atlas is the closest thing Chicago has to the ancient stationery shops of London. I'll be there signing books, and since Don—against my advice, I should add—wants to show that Amazon has nothing on him, thank you very much—the books are priced at $15.95, 30 percent below list and a penny under the behemoth Amazon. Hope to see you there! 

Travels with Kitty




     We took Kitty with us down to Champaign last weekend. My idea. We were about to leave her with the neighbors—they love having her, of course. And no doubt she would be happy to be left behind, playing on the block with her dog pal Izzy. But then we would be dogless, and I decided it would be just more fun to have her along, and it was.
     She is a well-travelled dog--she has been out to Colorado, and sniffed at Rocky Mountain National Park, had tea in the Empire Room at the Palmer House, or the dog equivalent of tea anyway, padded through the Smokey Mountains, and turned up her nose at the Atlantic Ocean.
     At times wrangling both Kitty and a vacation has required a bit of ingenuity. In Durango, Colorado, we knew we would be gone most of the day taking the narrow gauge train to Silverton and back. So I slipped a $20 bill to the bellboy to walk the dog at lunch. He was happy for the easy double sawbuck, and I felt like King Farouk arranging it. Kitty didn't seem to mind.
     Hotels tend to be more accommodating to dogs than they used to be. The Palmer House provided a special dog bed. The Chateau Frontenac in Quebec has a dog in the lobby, to comfort dogless visitors. There was a line to pet her. Before our trip downstate, I phoned ahead, and the Hyatt Place was happy to have her, though they should be, considering their $75 fee for dogs, which is good whether you stay one day or six. A lot of money, and would have been a deal breaker, but I was there with a festival, which had secured a block of rooms, and special accommodations were made.  
    As soon as we arrived, we took her to lunch across the street at the Big Grove Tavern, which was also happy to have her dine with us, on the patio. We weren't even the only party with a dog waiting for a table. I looped her leash under the leg of my chair, and left her to sniff around, and snuck her bits of omelet.
     I could go on, but there really isn't more of a point today than, "Don't be afraid to take your dog places." Yes, I know, earth-shaking it's not. No matter. Take the dog. Sure, you might feel like Nathan Lane in "The Birdcage," particularly if you are a man of a certain age escorting a tiny dog. Go with it. You'd be surprised what a well-behaved small dog can get away with, if you're polite and quick about it. I walked her into the Northbrook Post Office one day last week to transact some quick business.
    "Are dogs allowed?" I asked innocently, as we conducted our transaction.
    "Not usually," the clerk said, tossing Kitty a glance. 
    "Oh, I 'm very sorry," I said, collecting my stamps and my change. "I didn't realize." And we were gone. 
    

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Only Part of Last Night's Debate You Need to See



     I don't usually share the works of other writers here. But since today's post is an expansion of yesterday's, and since I have a paternal interest in this young writer out of California, I thought, for those who had enough of Nixon, I'd post this analysis of Monday's debate taken from the Claremont Independent, written by Ross Steinberg, junior at Pomona College.

     Yesterday’s debate featured exactly the Trumpian performance we’ve come to expect: the Donald’s signature one-two punch of incoherence and lies, paired with enough bizarre non sequiturs—“I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers,” anyone?—so as to border on the surreal.
     With such a ‘bigly’ amount of sheer ineptitude, however, genuinely important debate moments are being forgotten. It’s easy to miss the insanity buried amidst the absurd, the moments such as when Trump accused Clinton of fighting for her entire 68 years of life against an organization started in 2004. But one of Trump’s less provocative monologues contains the most substantive policy revelation of the debate. It is a microcosm of the debate as a whole; if you don’t have the time to watch the full debate, all you need to do to understand Round One of Trump v. Clinton is to read this three-paragraph transcript of the Republican nominee’s response to the following question from moderator Lester Holt: “On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy?”


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Trump is going to win (redux).

Illinois GOP chairman Tim Schneider at the City Club Tuesday. 

     No, this isn't deja vu. Today's column is a reworking of Tuesday's post. It seemed something worth sharing in the paper, and so I fleshed it out by sliding over to the City Club to hear what the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party had to say about Monday's debate. So apologies for the overlap, though you fans of nuance—and I know you're out there—might enjoy spotting the various differences between the two pieces. 

     Donald Trump is going to be elected president of the United States on Nov. 8.
     At least I believe he will. I’m not the Delphic oracle. But that seems the direction we’re heading, and Monday night’s debate only reinforced my suspicion.
     What? You think Hillary Clinton won? Since I have my seer cap on, let me peer into your mind, read your thoughts and make a bold guess:
     You liked Hillary Clinton before, right?
     Amazing. But that cuts both ways. Trump fans were equally buoyed. Eighty percent of Drudge Report readers picked Trump the winner in a post-debate poll, as did viewers of Fox News. They’ve supported him so far; what could possibly happen to shake them?
     The Democrats and the pundits were ululating Clinton’s victory Tuesday. I watched every minute and agree that, under the usual rules of what I think of as SaneWorld, Clinton won, looking poised and presidential while Trump babbled and flailed. But his supporters recounted something very different the morning after.
     “Honestly, and the truth is . . . a draw,” Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, told the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday. “I don’t think anything that happened last night in the debate changed anybody’s mind. If you were going to vote for her before the debate, you’re going to vote for her after the debate. Donald Trump the same way.”


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Donald Trump wins



     Donald Trump is going to be elected president on Nov. 8.
     At least I think he will. I'm not the flippin' Delphic oracle. But that seems to be the direction we're heading, and Monday night's debate only reinforced that belief. Hillary Clinton was vastly superior, yet it was a draw, I am certain, in the minds of Americans. Each candidate spoke to his or her audience, which had only scorn for the other. 
   And then there's Richard Nixon. 
     I pulled down Elizabeth Drew's book on Nixon, part of Times Books'' series of brief biographies, The American Presidents.
     And I happened upon this sentence: "Nixon had transformed the party of Abraham Lincoln into the party that welcomed racists and despisers of big government, setting in motion a Republican conservative ascendancy."
    Sound familiar? 
    Yes, the past is not prologue, necessarily. 
    But it is a hint.
    All those commentators decrying — correctly — how Trump is the worst candidate in modern history are missing the point. Yes, Trump is terrible. But Nixon was pretty bad too. He had been a congressman and a senator and Eisenhower's neglected vice president (is there any other kind?) for eight years.
     But he was also seen as uniquely unqualified, a House Un-American Activities Committee's henchman, there for the jobs too unpleasant for Joe McCarthy to handle himself. During the 1960 campaign a Herblock cartoon had shown Nixon emerging from a sewer while someone in a gleeful welcoming committee shouted, "Here He Comes Now!" 
     His opponent, Hubert Humphrey was enormously qualified. Also vice-president, but with none of the drawbacks and personal deficiencies of Nixon. Humphrey was the mainstream politician from Central Casting.
    Sound familiar?
    Just. Like. Hillary. Clinton.
    As with Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party passion had been drained by more dynamic opponents: Eugene McCarthy, whose candidacy fizzled, and Robert F. Kennedy, who would have probably taken the nomination had he not been assassinated.  
    Nixon was law and order. Humphrey was violence in the streets. There was a third party candidate attractive those disgusted with both. 
    When the smoke cleared, Nixon just barely won: 43.4 percent of the vote, to Humphrey's 42.7 percent, with George Wallace earning 13.5 percent of the vote.
     So if — when — Trump wins, we can't be surprised. It has happened before. 
     And the truth is, Nixon wasn't so bad, as presidents go. Which leaves hope for Trump. As a man who constantly shifts position, who makes vows today and abandons them tomorrow, denying he ever made them in the first place, he could be among the great Democratic president ever. We just don't know, and to be honest, I doubt it. More like one of the great disasters. Either way, I have a feeling we're going to find out.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Those good-guy-with-a-gun fantasies have a real world price

Tyehimba Jess recites at the Literary Death Match in Champaign Saturday.

     You can’t drive down to Champaign without loving America just a little bit more. All that open space. The miles of brown September corn. The decaying red barns. The communications towers against big blue skies. The fact that the crazy 55 mph speed limit finally went back up to 70, a sign that our nation still retains the ability to repair our errors, at least the minor ones.
     There are, of course, ominous signs as well—literal signs, like the “TRUMP-PENCE” billboard in one farmer’s field. Or another announcing “GunsSaveLife.com,” an Illinois pro-guns-everywhere group formed, apparently, because the NRA just isn’t busy enough. The website’s top story is headlined “ARE NO GUNS MALLS SAFE?” and begins “Are America’s malls with ‘NO GUNS’ polices safe for you and your kids and grandkids to visit? That’s a great question given a pair of Muslim terror attacks a week apart at malls that shared policies and/or signage that prohibits law-abiding good guys from carrying guns on their premises . . .”
     I somehow screw up the courage to go to Northbrook Court without an AR-15 (which, I suppose I must point out, Maxon Shooter Supply notwithstanding, I could easily and legally buy if I choose to, which I don’t). But I understand others find this prospect terrifying.
     Give GunsSaveLife.com credit for moxie. Guns actually kill people, and when you look at the stats—hard to do, with Congress obstructing research into gun violence—you see that states with looser gun laws suffer more random gun violence. Because terror attacks—even two a week—though scary, are exceedingly rare compared with the daily slaughter that having handguns everywhere encourages.


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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Morgan Finley: "A monument to corruption"


  
     I tried to discuss Finley's legacy with him when he was still alive, drawing the poignant quote at the end of this obituary. I also called his son Patrick, who hung up on me when I explained that his obituary had to include his father being the highest ranking public official to go to prison in the Operation Incubator Probe. So if any of Finley's good works were overlooked in this, it was not for lack of trying to find them on my part.

     He was “the mayor’s boy.”
     As a child, Bud Finley, who came from a poor Irish family, ran errands for Richard J. Daley in their Bridgeport neighborhood. The future mayor would reward him with a quarter.
     As an adult, Morgan Finley, who died Tuesday at age 91,  lived on South Lowe, five houses down from the mayor. His wife Becky would babysit the Daley children.
     On such connections were political careers made, once upon a time in Chicago, and Finley rose through the ranks, first as secretary of Daley’s 11th Ward Democrats, then state senator from Daley’s 9th district—“the mayor’s senator”—then serving as clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, where he met disaster.
     “Never take a nickel,” his mentor had advised him. “Just hand ‘em your insurance card.”
     Finley did not take that sensible advice, and so became the highest ranking public official swept up in the Operation Incubator Probe in the mid-1980s, convicted of racketeering and attempted extortion, “a monument to corruption” in the words of the judge who sent him to prison.
      Morgan Martin Finley was born the son of a railroad switchman.  For seven years, the slight, red-haired boy was mascot of the White Sox. He later called Bridgeport “the greatest neighborhood in the world.”
  
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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?



    There are Saturdays when I feel, "I've really got 'em stumped this time."
    This won't be one of those Saturdays. 
     I can't be the only person who saw this place and thought, "Wow, look at that building!" 
    So I imagine others were floored as well. 
    Where is this place? 
    I've collected some information about it—I thought of writing a separate building profile. But Saturday rolled around, and I need something. 
    I also need a prize. Can't send books out every week.  I need to save those to fling at prominent people who probably never see them. And just thinking about the posters makes me wretch.  How about ... a ... an....
     Why not something intangible? How about publicity? The winner gets his event or cause or opinion or beloved cat ballyhooed on my blog on their own unique post. That's different, and perhaps even desirable. One dose of exposure to my thousands of daily readers. 
    Or, if that doesn't work, there's always a blog poster. I still have to get rid of the damn things. 
    Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Shakespeare in Chicago—the amazing, truish story

    
When Mercutio tells Tybalt in "Romeo & Juliet," "you fight by the book of arithmetic,"
 this is the book he's referring to. (Courtesy Newberry Library)

     This column was fun to write. Fun to grab a Divvy up to the Newberry.  Fun to spend an hour being walked through the show by the deeply-knowledgable Jill Gage, the Newberry researcher in charge of it. Fun to craft the tale this way. True, I bumped into my 650 word limit; I had to leave spectacular stuff from the show on the cutting room floor. Which made me feel a tad guilty taking space for my trick opening. But that is also what makes it pack a punch, and not just be "The Sun-Times Goes to an Exhibit."
    I did worry about what I call "The Curator Effect"—where an exhibit is compelling provided you have the person who spent four years putting it together walk you through. And to top it off Gage is an expert in Samuel Johnson, my hero. Not often I get the chance to talk to one of THOSE. So we had a good chat. While I do think the average person interested in Shakespeare can pull enough out of the displays to reward an hour spent there on their own, the good news is, you don't have to brave it alone. Tours with Jill Gage are being offered to the public Sept 24, Oct. 26. Nov. 22, and Dec. 8. I would go for one of those, if possible.

     William Shakespeare lived briefly in Chicago, in the summer of 1603. As you might remember from grade school, his ship was blown off course sailing from his home in Stratford-on-Avon to London, drifting instead through the unbuilt St. Lawrence Seaway and ending up at colonial Chicago. Though records were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1666, the Bard is thought to have stayed at Fort Dearborn, where legend is he performed in a barracks production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Though Shakespeare soon returned to England via the Graf Zeppelin, experts suspect his masterpiece, “Richard III,” written in 1592, was influenced by his sojourn here.   
Jill Gage with costume worn in Chicago by Edwin Booth

     I’m going to enjoy the Trump era. Why should he be the only one free to lie with impunity? Safe in the assumption that his audience either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the actual facts are. No one can prove that Shakespeare never lived in Chicago. Besides, if he didn’t live here, why is there a “Shakespeare Street”? Answer that! You can’t. I rest my case.
     Until Jan. 20, however, 43 percent of the nation must limit ourselves to what Othello calls “the ocular proof,” that is, depending on verified reality to provide amazement — a practice that already feels antique, like dipping candles. So it is good that the Newberry Library has taken the most picked-over historical subject imaginable, the aforementioned William Shakespeare, and turned his legacy into a true font of fascination.

     “Creating Shakespeare” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 31 in the museum’s ground floor exhibit space. It doesn’t dwell on the meager known facts about Shakespeare’s life, such as his death in 1616 which prompted these celebrations. Instead it looks at how his legacy has been, in each new generation, re-worked into the important creative force we enjoy today. 

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mr. Carlson

Roger Carlson at Bookman's Alley (photo by Marc Perlish)

      They're expecting a good turnout for my reading at Bookends & Beginnings Thursday night. But one person I'm not expecting to be there is Roger Carlson. He's in his late 80s now, doesn't get around much anymore, and besides, having worked for a third of a century in the sprawling store tucked in the alley behind Sherman Avenue, I imagine he has spent enough time there without making a special trip now that he no longer owns the store.
      Mr. Carlson, as I always called him, was not the come-out-to-see-you sort. Even in his prime, he would register my arrival by glancing up from his book and exclaiming "Neil!!!" not so much happy as amused, as if he had entirely forgotten the concept of me, and there I was, in all my ridiculousness, standing before him once again. 
     We would talk, and I would confess my undergraduate anxieties, if it were the early 1980s, or my suburban newspaper anxieties, if it were the mid-1980s, or my night shift drudge anxieties, in the late 1980s. Through the 1990s, it was book publishing woes, and I would talk about my current endeavor, and admire the lithograph he had of Napoleon aboard the Bellerophon, being taken to St. Helena. Something about the Little Corporal's face, the knot of French officers. I related to the emperor-in-exile.  From time to time I would try to buy it from Mr. Carlson, but he didn't entertain the notion, either because it would be too expensive, or he just didn't part with the quirky artifacts decorating his store, or he just assumed that I couldn't pay him what it was worth. 
       I got the sense he supported himself by dealing in the rare editions he would discover at estate sales,  and the shop itself was just a clubhouse, a place to set and read a book and talk with his actual friends—people other than myself—who happened in.  Later, when I profiled him, first for the Daily Northwestern, and then for the Barrington Courier-Review, and finally the Sun-Times, I learned a bit about his life. He had been a hard-drinking adman — magazine sales —gotten sober, left that life to pursue his dream: this store.
     I wasn't the only writer to notice him. Audrey Niffenegger gave him a cameo in her best-seller The Time Traveller's Wife:
     Roger is sitting behind his little untidy desk chatting with a ruddy white-haired gentleman about something to do with chamber music. He smiles when he sees us. 'Clare, I've got something you will like,' he says. Henry makes a beeline for the back of the store where all the printing and bibliophilic stuff is. Gomez meanders around looking at the weird little objects that are tucked into the various section: a saddle in Westerns, a deerstalker's cap in Mysteries. He takes a gumdrop from the immense bowl in the Children's section, not realizing that those gumdrops have been there for years and you can hurt yourself on them.
   Not true — the gumdrops were in the front, by Humor. It was those strangely soft, chalky white mints that you seldom see anywhere that were back by the children's section. Creative license I suppose.      
    Mr. Carlson surprised me when, in 2008, he held a signing for Drunkard at Bookman's Alley. It was a memorable night of conversation and laughter and a  big turn-out. I was surprised he went to the bother; my theory is he related to the subject matter, but I can't be sure. That was a defining characteristic of Mr. Carlson. He had mysteries. When he finallly closed the shop in 2013, it was after a series of false starts. Even then, I couldn't quite believe he was closing, not until one day he gave me a present—the Napoleon print I had always admired. I thought I would cry.
     I wasn't the best customer. I talked more than I bought. He probably made more on any given rare book transaction than I spent in my entire life at his place. The most expensive thing I ever bought there wasn't even bought by me, but my wife, acting on my behalf. I pulled down a copy of James Thurber's Fables for Our Time from the shelf, thinking it was the book my wife had bought me as an expensive present and saw no, according to the receipt inside, from Jan. 10, 1988, it cost $8 and -- oh look -- Mr. Carlson subtracted 80 cents. Must have given me a discount, out of pity, I suppose. The gift was the book next to it, a first edition of The Seal in the Bedroom And Other Predicaments, with an introduction by Dorothy Parker. The price, $45, still penciled in the inside cover. That's love.
    An introduction by Dorothy Parker, now that I think of it, that I quote in my new book, where she says the people in his drawings have "the semblance of unbaked cookies." A perfect description.
      The new book will be stacked at Bookends and Beginnings — something of a get, since the first edition has sold out and the University of Chicago Press is hurrying to print more. Amazon can take two weeks to ship it. But I will be there, 6:30 tonight, to read, and talk about the book. And while Mr. Carlson will no doubt stay in, I hope you go out and join me. It is a special little bookstore, and deserves support. All bookstores do, but this one more than most, not just because it is a cozy-yet-big, well-designed and well-run place, and its new owners, Jeff Garrett and his wife Nina Barrett, have recast into something both new and homey, fresh and familiar. I gave them their due when they opened the store.  Now it is your turn. They've devoted their lives to getting this place up and running. I'm hoping you'll join me in devoting 90 minutes to celebrating my accomplishment, and theirs.

"Out of the Wreck I Rise," reading and signing, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 (Rear) Sherman, Evanston, 6:30 - 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why do people have babies and drive cars?


     Why do people insist on having babies? When they know that many of them will end up as criminals? One percent of American adults are currently in prison. That means one out of every hundred newborns cooing in a bassinet can be expected to end up rotting in a bathroom-sized cell. And if you consider those who commit crimes but aren’t arrested, the one-in-100 failure rate for babies is even worse.
     And yet we keep having them. Why?
     The answer is easy. The babies are ours. We want them. So we ignore the considerable percentage who will go into the ditch, preferring to focus on the handful who will become baseball players or Nobel Prize winners or presidents.
     To suggest otherwise would seem demented. The certainty of future criminals is not an argument against babies, any more than the certainty of accidents is an argument to set highway speed limits at 15 mph. We accept — or would, if we thought about it, which we don’t — that not every child grows up into a contributing member of society, just as we accept that 30,000 people are going to die in 2017 on the roads. It’s a price we’re willing to pay for babies and driving.
     But not for immigrants. The Republican Party, led by Donald Trump, wants to roll back immigration, both Hispanics and Muslims — and I don’t think I am misstating their argument here — because: a) criminals are to be found among Hispanic immigrants; and b) terrorists are to be found among Muslim immigrants.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"I think I'll have the 'beverages'"



     For a smart guy, I can be pretty dense.
     Last week I was meeting a friend for lunch at Kanela Breakfast Club, a hip re-imagining of the old Greek diner. She picked the spot, and as I had never been there before, I eagerly examined the menu, drinking the excellent Bow Truss coffee. I was hungry, and my eye fell upon a promising entry, "BREAKFAST MEAT." I like meat, and read the description.
     "Peppered bacon, smoked ham, apple chicken sausage." Sounding good, I thought. "House made pork sausage, pork belly,  vegetarian sausage"—quite a lot, really—"veggie bacon, tofu." 
    The price was the first tip-off, "$3.99." A bargain for that yawning platter of protein. Then my eyes drifted below, "TOAST" and above, to the section description, "SIDES" and I realized, duh, that I wasn't reading the description of a meal, but of all the various meats available for $3.99 each. 
    I smiled. A person can get lost in a new menu just like in a new neighborhood, and no harm in turning down the wrong street for a moment and having to double back. I ended up ordering the "Lorraine Scramble"—peppered bacon, gruyere cheese, caramelized onion, charred scallion and toast for $11.99—and was happy both with my selection and that I managed to order an actual dish and not, oh, tried to order the entire "COFFEE" section, thinking it some kind of trendy coffee flight.   
    There are five Kanela locations, and the one in Old Town is airy and pleasant, and I passed the time until my friend arrived soaking up its details, and wondering why the Breakfast Meat had described its sausage as "vegetarian" but the tofu, later in the list, as "veggie." It seemed a sort of relaxation, a little twist of ease as the list went along, passing from the formal to the casual, which suited the place, and my mood.
     
     

Monday, September 19, 2016

How much (abused) is that doggie in the window?



     Last week, the Humane Society of the United States settled a lawsuit against Furry Babies pet stores intended to curb their habit of selling dogs from puppy mills.
     While the five Furry Babies locations are on the fringes of the Chicago area—Aurora, Blomingdale, Janesville, Joliet and Rockford—the news had an unexpected effect closer to home: my heart.
     See, our dog Kitty....
     Better start at the beginning.
     Cue the maudlin music.
     See, growing up, I never had a dog. My father was born in the Bronx, where his having a dog would have been as unimaginable as my raising a bear cub. We had pet rats — seriously, black and white rats.
     So when my boys first started lobbying for a dog, I was adamant. "You're not asking for a dog," I'd tell them, "you're asking me to pick up dog crap twice a day and I'm not going to do it!" The older one, ever resourceful, started a dog-walking business the summer he was 8, to show he could handle the responsibility. But he quickly abandoned both the business and lobbying for dogs. I felt vindicated.
     The younger was more resourceful, however, tying the dog to his bar mitzvah. Gulling a child to perform this arcane religious rite softened me—I would have gotten him an ox had 

he asked....

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Not everything is about money




     One of the many drawback of living in a capitalist society is we tend to view our endeavors through the lens of monetary profit and loss.  And on that scale, going to Cleveland to do a book signing on my own dime was a bust. I spent $200 to fly out there, sold a dozen books, made maybe $10. Not a smart business plan.
     But money is only one factor, and not always the most important one. 
     Add to the non-monetary side of the tally sheet the  lovely lunch my friend Laura made when I arrived, one we enjoyed on her stone patio, surrounded by trees and gardens. Walking around my hometown, noting what had changed, and what hadn't. The hours of conversation with her and her husband Jim, my oldest friend. Sitting on their front porch Saturday morning, watching the rain pelt the streets of Berea, contented as a clam.
     All profit, though not one that could show up on my tax returns.
     I snapped the above photo in Barnes & Noble at 1 p.m., the starting time of my talk. It might sound odd, but I felt genuine relief, almost a thrill, at the little phalanx of six empty chairs -- such low expectations, and even those were unmet. You had to laugh, and I did. "What matters," I said to Jim and Laura, quoting Charles Bukowski from our book, "is how well you walk through the fire." 
    And people did show up shortly thereafter—that helped, I won't lie to you. Two classmates from high school. A friend from the synagogue I attended, Beth Israel. The sister-in-law of a Chicago friend. And strangers ... six, maybe eight. A mother and daughter. A women sent by a therapist colleague. A father who hurried in, a half hour late after the talk was done. He explained to me that his wife was following the Mary Worth comic strip, deep in an episode about addiction, and turned to the comic page, where the article about my signing happened to be. The coincidence rattled her.
     "My wife said you were sent by God," he explained, in utter sincerity. Their son, 23, ravaged by addiction, driven from college. She dispatched him to get the book. I explained that the book is not a panacea, that it can't help anybody who isn't try to to stay sober already, that people have to decide for themselves they were going to try to get better and maybe this could help give them perspective and insight. 
    "You might get more out of it than he does," I said. We talked for a long time, after my presentation. Then a set of parents stepped up with a similar story. The child beyond help. Looking for anything. We talked some more. They were so subdued, the bone-deep humility of the defeated. 
     So my visit might help them. And it certainly helped me. I went, not to turn a profit, not just to toss a rope to strangers, though I hoped to do that, but also because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your writing, no one will. Sure it's pointless. Still, I wanted to get a couple planes off the cratered runway and into the air to challenge wave after wave of the sky-darkening squadrons of obscurity, bombing my latest little literary vessel. I knew I could go to my hometown and the local paper would maybe carry something -- yes, it was vinegary and hastily-cobbled together, but prominently displayed, and it did get a few people there, including that kid's father. And 30 minutes on a big radio station. It was fun of spending a half hour talking to the smart, sensitive Alan Cox on WMMS -- a legendary radio station in Cleveland that I listened to religiously as a teenager. The resulting turn-out might have seemed paltry compared to the push behind it, but only if you consider touching a person or two paltry. I really don't. I had such a good time visiting my friends that I said my only mistake was scheduling a reading -- I should have just come, hung out with them for a day and then gone home. "But you wouldn't have come without the reading," Jim said, and I realized he was right. The motive was commercial, but the benefits were purely spiritual. And who knows? Maybe someday, at another sparsely-attended reading, a man will step up and say, "You don't know me, but my parents met you at a book store in Cleveland in 2016, and mister, your book saved my life."  That would be true treasure though, again, not in a monetary sense. Something that would enrich me even though it could never be spent.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday fun activity: What IS this?




     Okay, this is a tough one. Then again, I'm in Cleveland this morning, getting ready for my reading at the Barnes & Noble in Westlake, and it wouldn't do for you to solve it at 7:01 a.m. and have nothing to do for the rest of the day. 
     So where is this thing? And what is it? I'm looking forward to telling you this afternoon, to explaining exactly why I find it so appealing. 
     The winner gets ... something good ... a copy of my new book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," published last week by University of Chicago Press. Provided I can get my hands on one. I keep giving away my copies, and I figure, if I can send one to Stephen King, for all the good it'll do (because he's in it) then I can send one to you.
    If you figure out the location of this very enigmatic object. Good luck. Place your guesses below. 
  
     Postscript
     What caught my eye about this artwork, by Welsh artist Jon Langford, when I saw it Thursday in the window of the Thomas Masters Gallery, 245 W. North, was its similarity to the cowboy atop the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I love that image, and Langford's twist on it is an improvement on the original. It's painted on wood, and the opposite side is black with a number of mottos on it.  The piece is for sale for $2500, and if I didn't have two boys in college, I might snap it up for myself. But as it is, it'll have to suffice to admire it here. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Chasing the elusive Butterfly of Responsibility



     If this topic seems familiar, it began as yesterday's blog post, but when I got to work Thursday morning, the question still hung there, with colleagues from fellow reporters to Mike, who supervises the coffee room, asking me who was responsible. (If you're coming late to the game, this issue began Wednesday with a chunk of concrete falling on a commuter's head). I didn't solve the mystery of why the party legally obligated to make the repairs isn't doing so. But I sure tried. Late in the day Union Station announced it was shutting down the Madison Street entrance indefinitely. I didn't know whether to feel proud or guilty. 

     My wife never learned to touch type. In the mid-1970s, a young woman learning to type seemed to be punching her ticket for a life of secretarial work. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a writer, so I sat in a 7th grade classroom listening to a voice on a 33 rpm record intone, “F F F, J J J,” while dutifully tapping keys on a Royal manual typewriter.

     It also meant I typed all my beloved’s law school papers while she was barreling through the Chicago Kent College of Law. (All save one; I made her find a typist once, out of pure contrariness). Still, typing those papers gave me an appreciation for the law, for its storytelling qualities. I thought of those complex take-home exam questions this week when concrete chunks plunging from the plaza above Union Station drew me into the world of legal responsibility.
     Pencils ready? Then let’s begin.
     1) A commuter railroad delivers passengers into a station it does not own. That station is owned by another, national railroad. But the national railroad does not own the air rights above the station, secured by real estate investors constructing an office building in the mid-1960s. All this takes place in Chicago.
     If a chunk of concrete falls from the plaza belonging to the real estate investor’s office building and hits one of the commuter railroad’s passengers, who is responsible for this tort?
     a) The commuter railroad, Metra;
     b) the national railroad, Amtrak;
     c) the owners of the office building, 10 S. Riverside Plaza, a real estate investment firm called Callahan Capital Properties
     d) the city of Chicago?


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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Chasing the elusive Butterfly of Responsibility




     Yesterday's column on a passenger getting beaned by falling rubble got a lot of attention on TV. But what amazes me even more than chunks of debris showering upon commuters' heads as they slog through the loud, smokey, dim stygian underworld of Union Station is the resultant rondo of official evasion so convoluted it sounds like the set-up for a story problem on a law school exam.
     Let's try to state it clearly. Pencils ready? Then let's begin.
     1) Metra runs a railroad that delivers passengers into a building it does not own. That building, Union Station. is owned by Amtrak, the national rail service. But Amtrak does not own the air rights, which it sold to 10 S. Riverside Plaza Ltd. when a 21-story office block was constructed above their tracks in the mid-1960s.
     If a piece of plaza dislodges itself from the underside of 10 S. Riverside Plaza and hits a Metra passenger walking through the north platform of Amtrak's Union Station, who is actually responsible for the tort? Metra, which ferries people into harm's way? Amtrak, which owns the building they are conveyed into? 10 S. Riverside Plaza, which runs above the people and the building, and is the source for crumbling concrete being subjected to the laws of gravity if not the laws of the state of Illinois?  

      Is it a) Metra; b) Amtrak; c) 10 S. Riverside; d) the injured passenger, or e) the city of Chicago?
     A toughie, right?
     We know how Metra feels ("Sorry, not my table.") And we how Amtrak feels ("Sorry, not my table.") While I had a good guess about how 10 S. Riverside Plaza—or more precisely, its owner, Callahan Capital Properties—feels, I didn't want to put words in their mouths.
     I called Noah Gens, general manager of building operations for 10 S. Riverside Plaza, and asked him, or more precisely, his voicemail: If you are responsible for this, as Amtrak says you are, then why aren't you fixing  the hazard that you are responsible for fixing?
     He did not, as I expected, leap to reply, perhaps adhering to the If-I-ignore-the-problem-it'll-go-away mentality that is serving Metra and Amtrak so well.
     Amtrak meanwhile, on Wednesday, offered this bit of enlightenment, which I will share in full since, hell, this is a blog:

Amtrak statement:Amtrak is working with partners at Chicago Union Station to ensure a safe environment for all passengers. While it is the responsibility of the third-party property owners to maintain the property over the tracks, Amtrak has brought in an independent contractor to continue inspections and reinforce overhead protections, where appropriate, to immediately secure the area for the safety of passengers and the general public. During this time, three tracks remain out of service however we’re working to minimize delays. Amtrak has invested considerable resources to address these issues in the past and will continue to work with property owners, the City, and Metra to do so in the future. If third-party property owners fail to inspect and maintain the property over the tracks, Amtrak will take appropriate steps to ensure public safety, including taking legal action. In a similar case in Chicago, Amtrak and Chicago Union Station invested more than half a million dollars in repairs in the interest of public safety.
     Which I think I was supposed to be grateful to receive. But only lead to more questions, in my case:
Thanks though I'm confused. If it's their responsibility, then why aren't they taking care of it? If it isn't your responsibility, then why are you taking care of it? Any plans to sue them? It is, after all, their responsibility, not yours. Just curious.NS
     This lead to a phone call which, alas, was taken off the record after an on-the-record long sigh and a rueful chuckle on Amtrak's part. I learned the word "plenum" which is defined as "a space completely filled with matter" which I think, in this case, is a fancy term for "the plaza above the tracks."
     I was also directed to a Sun-Times story from last year which was supposed to enlighten me, but actually only made the subject even murkier, as it is about Amtrak suing, not 10 S. Riverside Plaza, but the City of Chicago for not taking care of the plaza since the city supposedly assumed responsibility for the task in 1980?
     Huh? The city? Where did they come from? The city can't be the mystery "third-party property owner" Amtrak is referring to; it doesn't own it.
     Though I'm not saying the answer is "e." Frankly, I don't know what the answer is. Maybe nobody does. Though for all practical purposes, the answer is "d," the passenger, who is basically forced to run a gantlet of hazards at Union Station—cascading liquids one prays are water, resultant ice from those liquids, crumbling pillars, walls and ceilings, construction equipment and scaffolding and, oh yeah, trains.
    Okay, enough for today. We'll put on our pith helmet, grab our butterfly net, and search for the elusive Butterfly of Responsibility again tomorrow, applying ourselves at both Rahm Emanuel's Hall of Mirrors, and the money matterhorn that is Callahn Capital Properties, a real estate private equity firm which seems to take great pride in the 160 million square feet of property it owns across the country. One assumes they also take pride in fulfilling their legal obligations to maintain that huge portfolio of profitable property so it doesn't fall down on people's heads. 
     But we'll let them explain that themselves.  If we can find them. And if they'll talk. Two big "ifs."



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Union Station is falling down on commuters' heads



     One interesting aspect of this story was how I shifted from being a bystander to a reporter. I gathered the concrete, with the man holding them, thinking they should be preserved, for the young woman who was hit. And I took a picture of them thinking I didn't want to hang on to these pieces. But the woman was in the background, and I angled the shot to include her. I still wasn't quite in the reporter mode. I followed her and my wife back into the train car, said some reassuring words, then left with my wife.
    I got maybe 10 feet, realized this all should go in the paper, then doubled back and got her name. 
     To be honest, even later, back at the office, I wondered whether I was blowing this out of proportion because I happened to be there; maybe this wasn't news, but just an incident.  But it seemed more real than riffing on Donald Trump's latest. Every TV station in town leapt to cover it, so I wasn't alone in finding important in it. It felt good, catching the 9:45 to Northbrook after staying late, to see they had closed down the track we were on. That might not have happened had it not been in the paper.

     Union Station is dangerous. The place is falling apart in chunks, showering debris on commuters hurrying through its dim, decaying bowels. People get hurt.
     At least one person got hurt Tuesday. The Metra Milwaukee North line had just arrived on track 9 at 8:37 a.m. Passengers poured out to begin the loud, slow shuffle toward the Madison Street exit. Several pounds of concrete, blackened by soot, fell from the ceiling. A piece struck Hilda Piell, 48, of Northbrook, atop the head, fracturing her skull. She let out a cry and doubled over in pain.
      A smaller chunk also struck my wife, Edie, standing in front of Piell. But it glanced off her back, and she wasn’t badly hurt.
     “I thought somebody smashed me with their bag,” Edie said. “It was the debris that hit me, really hard. I turned around, thought maybe she had dropped her bag. There was still more stuff falling down.”
     I was next to my wife, lost in the commuter bubble, wearing Bose noise-canceling headphones. But I felt a spray of gravel and noticed Edie was gone, so I turned to see a woman crying, my wife comforting her, commuters flowing around. I yanked off the headphones; the roar of the station turned to a howl...


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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Where's H.L. Mencken when we need him?

H.L. Mencken
     As Donald Trump, the most idiotic and unfit man to run for the American presidency in living memory, deforms our political discourse, it can be a comfort to remind ourselves that imbecility is nothing new, but has a long, rich tradition in American politics. And no voice more clearly outlined what he called the "booboisie" than H.L. Mencken, whose 136th birthday was Monday. 
     He injected his venom into the relatively benign figure of Warren G. Harding. What would he have made of a poisonous sac of mendacious malice like Donald Trump? One likes to think he'd dice Trump into cubes. But given the way Trump, like the Terminator, can be blown apart by criticism and censure and the mercury drops of his solipsistic essence just reconstitute, the red eye blinks to life, he pulls himself to his feet and continues on his inexorable march to the White House. 
    This originally ran in 2006.

     Anniversary stories are lazy journalism. Every day is the 75th anniversary of this or 25 years since that. Births and battles, deaths and discoveries. In a dynamic world where so much is new and fascinating, it seems shameful to turn your back on the thrilling present and sit around regurgitating the well-chewed past, working up an air of false wonder that it has been 100 years since Mr. Fig met Mr. Newton.
     But anniversary stories do serve a twofold purpose. First, they remind us of the passage of time. The 30th anniversary of the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody" might not have meant much to you. But as a guy who twisted crepe paper, decorating a gym, to the song when it was new, it was bittersweet to realize how much of my life — the good part, I suppose — has slipped away.
     Second, they do inform certain people of what they may have missed. As routine as those Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor commemorations are, every year there must be a new crop of youngsters who say, "Gee, Dad, did you realize the people who make Pokemon also bombed our ships?"

HE SAW US AS THE IDIOTS WE ARE

     On the train Wednesday night, a neighbor asked, "How's the column going?"
     "Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the death of H.L. Mencken," I replied, rather literally. "I thought I would write about him."
     He looked at me blankly.
     "Who's Mencken?" he said.
     Sigh.
     Henry Louis Mencken, the bard of Baltimore, the American Anti-Christ, was the most famous newspaperman of the 20th century, bar none. In the 1920s, the nation hung on his biting, acerbic observations in a way not seen before or since. In a profession where the work is by definition disposable, where little we do holds interest for a week, never mind a year, Mencken's words have endured, and are still sharp, 50 years after his passing and 80 after his heyday.
     Read Mencken on government:
     "Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right."
     It could have been written yesterday, in response to the Alito hearings. Read Mencken on faith:
     "The time must come inevitably when mankind shall surmount the imbecility of religion, as it has surmounted the imbecility of religion's ally, magic. It is impossible to imagine this world being really civilized so long as so much nonsense survives. In even its highest forms religion embraces concepts that run counter to all common sense."
     Who has the guts to write that kind of thing today? No matter what topic a writer tackles, odds are Mencken was already there, and did a better job. Feel like complaining about telephones?
     "The thing, indeed, becomes an unmitigated curse," he wrote in "The Telephone Menace" in 1927. "The telephone has become as great a boon to bores as the movies are to morons. . . . What is needed is a national secret organization, with members bound by a bloody oath to avoid telephone calls whenever possible and to boycott all persons who make them unnecessarily."
     That secret group is needed now more than ever.
     Quoting Mencken is addictive, and I have to stop. He was no knee-jerk critic — he wrote in praise of his favorite composers, writers, artists, and pioneered study of the American language. But his lasting contribution was to hold up a mirror to the United States in all its naked idiocy. Not only has Mencken not been topped, but in our culture of victimhood and complaint, we have slipped into a state of permanent babyhood where any extreme statement leads to demands for apology and censure. This week, a young columnist at the Los Angeles Times began his column, "I don't support our troops," and though the rest of the column went on to back our soldiers in ways sunshine patriots forget to do — calling for improved benefits and such — his tart opening sentence brought howls for his head. Mencken is still current because, alas, we have not changed.
         —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 27, 2006